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Becoming an Evidence-based Educator.

Did I really tweet that?

We all regret the odd tweet from time to time. But this one still makes me cringe deeply:

Tweet screenshot that says "Many skills are valuable, essay writing is transferable from Pokemon to Perseus."

I was a fresh-faced NQT, just two weeks into my new job, 3 months after graduating my PGCE with distinction and pretty pleased with myself. I tweeted this in support of an English lesson activity that was getting some criticism; the original tweet can be seen here, where you can see activities such as “Write a persuasive letter to your teacher asking them to let you play [Pokemon Go] in your lessons!”

I was unaware at the time of the lack of evidence for transferable skills such as essay writing. I hadn’t read Willingham yet, or Christodoulou (but I would soon) so I didn’t know that the research showed that domain-specific knowledge is required to think critically or write fluently about a domain, and that therefore “create a character description of a Pokemon” is pretty much pointless if your goal is to enable students to better analyse the motivations of Lady Macbeth.

Around this time I probably tweeted quite a lot of what I recently described as “naive proggy nonsense”. This blog post is my attempt to explain why I no longer believe that stuff. I hope my journal helps others understand their own views on classroom practice, particularly if you have ever questioned “progressive” methods and asked yourself, “is there a better way?”

A dark 18 months

My NQT school was an oversubscribed state secondary with a glowing Ofsted report and good results so I had high hopes for a long career there. It was tough, as an NQT I had no base but taught in four different classrooms, which was a challenge. I struggled with behaviour, trying to use the C1, C2, C3 system effectively, I wrote names on the board and when a student had exhausted their chances I gave them a detention. In some classes this meant a lot of work for me, and the same students ended up in detention regularly with little consequence. I remember one or two “Restorative” conversations which equally seemed to change nothing.

Books had to be marked with WWW, EBI and a challenge every two weeks, which had me lugging books home most nights. Little co-planning was done with most teachers making their own resources, and I remember buying resources off TES out of my own pocket because the department had nothing suitable and I was too exhausted to create anything myself.

I was acutely aware that I was largely going through the motions of teaching without actually being very effective. GCSE results at the end of my first year were poor, behaviour was getting worse in my problem classes, and I asked for help. My school leadership arranged for extra coaching and I went home every night feeling like I was failing.

My behaviour coaching advice included “get their attention”, “make your lessons relatable” and “limit teacher talk”. I vaguely remember internalising the sentiment “your lessons are not worth behaving for”, although I can’t pinpoint where I first heard that said. My lesson observations remained graded at “RI” because I could never quite hit all twenty targets in a single lesson. My head teacher gave me only another 12-month contract at the end of my NQT year “until I can get behaviour under control”.

As for the content I was teaching them, we whizzed along at a breakneck pace following the schedule set by the HoD, and I had no autonomy in this. I knew my students were not getting it, but I could not stop and re-cover anything, we had to power on leaving many bewildered and dispirited. At KS3 we taught in units, 6 per year, and no unit was ever revisited, or re-tested, so they arrived in KS4 with little prior knowledge.

This all felt wrong at the time, but what did I know as an NQT/RQT? The C1, C2, C3 system was working for others, so why didn’t it work for me? Other teachers are getting decent results so why not me? [I would later conclude that students behaved better for senior teachers, or those who had been in the school longer, something that was confirmed to me in those words by my teaching coach. It is this “they behave for me” situation that gives SLT the illusion that a C1-C2-C3 or similar “many-chances” behaviour system works, but it’s actually the senior teachers’ innate status and respect that is working, not the system].

Back on top with Evidence-based Education

Two and a half years ago (18 months after the “Pokemon” tweet and towards the end of my second year at my first school) a few things happened. Through Twitter I found the blogs of Ben Newmark, Tom Sherrington and Joe Kirby and found them compelling. I discovered that Joe Kirby was a teacher at Michaela Community School, about which I had heard much (and initially been horrified, and dismissed on ideological grounds), but now I decided to find out more, buying the Battle Hymn book and watching their videos. My own school experience had gone very sour. I was drowning in workload, getting terrible results and having daily behaviour battles. Something had to change.

I applied for other jobs, and started “re-educating” myself. Successfully moving schools to one which employs “Binary Behaviour” (sometimes called, unhelpfully, “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” behaviour standards, but “binary” is a better term), I read “Why don’t students like school?” by Daniel Willingham, and “7 Myths About Education” by Daisy Christodoulou. I got Doug Lemov’s “TLAC” out of the cupboard: I had tried many of these techniques but had little success previously, amazingly they started to work in the new school. I read blogs by Tom Sherrington, Tom Bennett, Adam Boxer, Andrew Old and Mark Enser. I read about Rosenshine and discovered the “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve” and how to straighten it out. I found that learning styles were nonsense, and the “Cone of Learning” is better described as the Pyramid of Myth.

Ben Newmark’s blog was the start of it all, this post on behaviour begins with a scenario what could have been any day in my NQT school. Through this and other blogs I had discovered a new world, far away from the world of “all, most, some” and “C1, C2, C3, 15 mins, 30 mins, RJ meeting”. My new school not only insisted on high behaviour standards, but they embraced research-informed teaching practices.

In the new school, having read lots of evidence-based teaching advice and attended quality CPD, I was able to improve my teaching practice dramatically. I dropped whizz-bang starters and replaced them with retrieval practice. I started telling the students what they needed to know, instead of getting them to “discover” it for themselves (by hiding it around the room – yes, I did that). I insisted on silent working, used no-hands-up and no-opt-out, I made sure my students spent most of the lesson thinking. Because memory is the residue of thought, my students were thinking hard. I switched to in-lesson feedback and whole-class feedback and no longer took books home.

And so it continues. I am very happy here and well respected. I feel I am teaching effectively, I have my evenings back and my results are excellent. There are no “show lesson” observations, just 10 minute drop-ins followed up by supportive conversations.

And I no longer tweet about transferable skills, making teaching “relatable” or dealing with “low-level disruption” (there’s no such thing). Because I no longer have to deal with these things, I can teach like I imagined teaching to be, sharing my knowledge and understanding with others who know they are there to learn.

There is another way.

Edited 3-12-20 to change the title from “When a prog went trad”. I felt the original title wasn’t a fair reflection of the content, and feel that some readers might be put off by the reference to the trad/prog division in UK education discourse.

By mraharrisoncs

Head of Computing, Manchester.

One reply on “Becoming an Evidence-based Educator.”

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